A former South Carolina police officer who faces sentencing next week for fatally shooting an unarmed black man is citing recent testimony from Attorney General Jeff Sessions as an example of how a person’s apparently evolving memories are attributable to stress, not lies.
Michael Slager pleaded guilty last May to committing federal civil rights violations when he fired eight rounds into the back of 50-year-old Walter Scott as the South Carolina man fled a traffic stop in April 2015. Scott’s death attracted national attention after a bystander’s video of the incident went viral, inflaming the ongoing debate over racial bias and excessive force in policing.
Federal prosecutors are seeking an enhanced sentence for obstruction of justice, accusing Slager of lying about the shooting when he told investigators that Scott had charged him and attempted to steal his Taser — a false claim that the bystander’s video later refuted.
Slager’s attorneys, however, are fighting the enhanced sentencing by arguing that Slager’s contradicting stories were caused by his memory faltering under stress, and not a deliberate attempt to mislead.
“A Swiss cheese memory is a symptom of stress, not an indicator of lying,” Slager’s attorneys wrote in a court filing, first citing testimony from a forensic psychiatrist, then using Sessions as an example.
‘I don’t recall’
Members of the House Judiciary Committee grilled Sessions in November over his wavering accounts of whether he was aware of contact between members of President Donald Trump’s campaign team and Russia.
Sessions had previously testified twice that he was “not aware” of any such communication. Those assertions were called into question when recently unsealed court documents filed by special counsel Robert Mueller showed that Sessions had been aware of a young campaign adviser’s desire to set up a meeting between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Sessions had been presiding over the March 31, 2016 meeting at which the adviser, George Papadopoulos, had pitched the idea. Sessions, however, maintained in his recent testimony that his story has “never changed,” and that he has “always told the truth.” His repeated “I don’t recall” refrain has since become the subject of widespread mocking on social media and derisive video mash-ups.
“I had no recollection of this [March 31] meeting until I saw these news reports,” Sessions testified. “I do now recall the March 2016 meeting that Mr. Papadopoulos attended, but I have no clear recollection of the details of what he said during that meeting.”
Slager’s lawyers, in their court filing submitted last week, seized upon Sessions’ argument as an example of how a person under pressure could feasibly offer up several different versions of their story without purposely lying.
“Like Sessions, Slager never lied or misled anyone,” Slager’s attorneys argued in a court filing. “Like Sessions, he answered the questions that were asked. When he had his memory refreshed, he added the refreshed recollection to his testimony. When he failed to remember certain items, it can be attributed to the stress or chaos of the event during which the memory should have been formed.”
The move appears to be somewhat of a taunt to the Justice Department, which is prosecuting Slager. If the prosecutors continue to call Slager a liar, they could risk appearing to call Sessions, the head of their department, a liar.
“Unlike Slager, who had been in what he perceived as a life and death struggle before he made his statements, Sessions had time to prepare for his Congressional testimony, yet still often got it wrong,” the filing said.
It continued: “Why? According to Sessions, he was working in chaotic conditions created by the Trump campaign. This was undoubtedly stressful, though not as stressful as having shot a man to death, or dealing with the aftermath of that, or facing the death penalty or life in prison. As Sessions made clear in his statement, a failure to recall, or an inaccurate recollection, does not a liar make.”